A Tale of Two Sanctuaries

Pre 1931 Fire interior FBC Sanctuary

The interior of the original sanctuary of First Baptist Church at Burrard & Nelson (facing the south wall) before the fire which all but destroyed it in February, 1931. (Positive produced from a negative using Photoshop Express). First Baptist Church archival collection. n.d.

The image above shows the interior of the sanctuary at First Baptist Church (Burrard & Nelson). However, close inspection reveals differences from today’s sanctuary. In fact, this photo shows the sanctuary before the 1931 fire which all but destroyed that part of the Church. (For more about the fire, see the conclusion of this post).

The camera is facing the Nelson Street entry to the sanctuary (taken probably from the podium on which the preacher and choir typically stand).

There are at least three markers that speak to differences between the older space and the new one created for FBC by Dominion Construction in 1931: (1) The lack of clear demarcation of a foyer/narthex from the sanctuary. Today, there is a wall of wood and glass, with doors into the sanctuary which may be closed during services. There is no sign of a wall in the image above. There appear to be horizontal wooden slats that rise approximately to waist height, but that’s it; the view of the stairs leading to the balcony on either side of the Nelson St. doors is unobstructed (and I imagine it would have been more difficult to disguise the noise of one’s late arrival to a service — even if the wooden stairs were carpeted!). The principal motive for this very open design feature was likely to let in as much natural light as possible in the days before inexpensive and easily accessible electricity.

(2) The horseshoe-shaped balcony (still present today) is ringed with what appears to be much more porous construction than we have in the post-fire rebuild (see image below). The pre-fire balcony wall appears to have consisted of a series of dowels within a wooden frame as contrasted with the, no-doubt safer (especially for young ones) but less open, balcony wall of today.

(3) Different light fixtures. The pre-fire fixtures visible above seemed to include a much greater number of bulbs – twelve in each visible fixture – as compared with the five present on comparable fixtures today. It isn’t clear from the photo how many fixtures were in the original sanctuary, but it’s likely that there were fewer than today. It also isn’t clear whether or not there were single-bulbed fixtures over each balcony gallery, as we have today.

Another feature which I believe was significantly different between the two sanctuaries, but which isn’t visible in the pre-fire image, is the ceiling-work. The original ceiling, installed when the building was constructed in 1910-11 was, I believe, similar in appearance (at least to a layman, like me) to the ceiling in Christ Church Cathedral (Burrard & Georgia) – i.e., a good deal of exposed wooden beam-work. The ceiling in the later sanctuary consists of a series of tiles (probably intended to improve acoustical quality).

VPL 23402 Interior FBC Nov 11, 1931 (after reconstruction of the sanctuary). Dominion photo.

VPL 23402 Interior FBC Nov 11, 1931 (after reconstruction of the sanctuary). Dominion photo.

CVA 1376-666 - [Interior of First Baptist Church at Nelson Street and Burrard Street after the fire], 1931.CVA 1376-666 - [Interior of First Baptist Church at Nelson Street and Burrard Street after the fire]. The water from the hoses of firefighters frozen onto the remains of the sanctuary. February, 1931.

CVA 1376-666 – [Interior of First Baptist Church at Nelson Street and Burrard Street after the fire]. The water from the hoses of firefighters frozen onto the remains of the sanctuary. I believe the camera is facing the opposite direction from the first photo in this post. We are looking at the north wall of the sanctuary (roughly where the fire was believed to have started; the photographer is likely standing near the baptistry). February, 1931.

Fire Destroys Sanctuary in ’31

In FBC’s official history, author and FBC member Les Cummings described the fire:

In the early morning hours of February 10, 1931, the fire swept through our church. The blaze was one of the most spectacular in the history of the downtown district, the flames shooting through the slate roof and attracting hundreds of early morning workers. Fire Chief C W. Thompson said the blaze started directly behind the organ. When he realized that the main sanctuary was doomed, he concentrated the firefighters’ efforts on saving the tower housing the chimes, and the Sunday School [Pinder Hall]. They stood alone, while the church itself became a mass of ruins. (Our First Century, Leslie J. Cummings, 1987 (Updated 2002), 42).

What caused the fire, to the best of my knowledge, was never determined.

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